When Tony Dungy, my guest for this week’s podcast, was coaching the Indianapolis Colts, I was playing for the Pacers. Personally, I had always admired him. He’s a fellow Michigander, and a man who broke the mold when it came to coaching.
In 2007, he became the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl and was personally responsible for bringing numerous other African American coaches into the NFL such as Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards and Mike Tomlin, strong limbs in his so-called “coaching tree.” He also turned the Colts into the pride of Indianapolis, a city that bleeds hoops.
The Colts and the Pacers had a really sympatico relationship. I would go to the Colts practices, owner Jim Irsay would host me for games, and the football guys would support us at our games. But the first time I met Coach Dungy, he said, “Hey Jalen, how’s it going?” and then he proceeded to rattle off facts about me. He knew who I was? I was so blown away. It was definitely, what you’d call, a moment. To say I was flattered would be an understatement.
Dungy has been a catalyst for change in the football world, but he was also on the receiving end of its earlier injustices. As a quarterback at the University of Minnesota, he spoke about how black quarterbacks weren’t given a shot in the league back then. He recalled playing Warren Moon at the University of Washington. He was leading the Big Ten in passing, and Moon was leading the Pac Ten in passing. But that didn’t matter when the draft rolled around.
“Neither one of us gets drafted,” he told me. “They tell me, ‘Well your skill set isn’t for the NFL, you need to play another position.’ So I go the NFL and convert to safety. They tell Warren Moon the same thing. He said, ‘No, my skill set is a quarterback. He went to Canada and won five Grey Cups.”
Talking about accomplished college QBs like Chuck Ealey, who went 33 and 0 at the University of Toledo, Moon, Condredge Holloway and Eldridge Dickey, he said: “These guys 40 years ago, would have been the Patrick Mahomeses and Russell Wilsons, but they didn’t get the opportunity, and it was a shame because it was the NFL that missed out on some of the excitement.”
But when he was given a coaching opportunity with the Steelers as a 25-year-old, he learned that he could make it by being unapologetically himself. Former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who instituted the Rooney Rule — requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more diverse candidates — gave him that confidence early on.
At the time, there were only 10 African American assistants in the entire league of 28 teams. “Dan Rooney was such a blessing to me … I am 25 years old and I am going on a scouting trip, and a GM from another team says, ‘Hey it’s great you are coaching, but if you want to be a success, you need to shave that beard because you look like a player, you don’t look like a coach.’ ” He went back to Rooney and asked, “Is this true? Is this who you want me to be?”
“He said, ‘That might be the case in other places, but here we want you to be who you are … He meant that physically and emotionally.”
That trickled down into the way he carried himself as a coach. As a black man coaching or playing, a lot of people want to see us be demonstrative. Coach Dungy wasn’t throwing chairs like Bobby Knight. But he had his trademark decorum, calm demeanor and, of course, his faith.
I saw firsthand how he changed the culture in Indianapolis. He lifted that team on the field, but also taught them to be great fathers and philanthropic minded men. It’s like the old EF Hutton commercial; when he talks, people listen.
He said he thinks the expansion of the Rooney Rule to give compensatory draft picks to teams developing minority talent in the coaching ranks or front office is a great idea and stressed the importance of looking outside of the box when hiring.
And at the end of this podcast, Coach Dungy, who is now a studio analyst for “Sunday Night Football” with NBC, had someone he wanted to introduce to me. It was two of his sons, one of whom is named Jalen. I got on FaceTime with him and joked around. And when COVID-19 dies down, and we are all moving around the country a bit more, I am looking forward to meeting Jalen Dungy and his siblings.
Life comes full circle.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.